Weather Vanes: Exhibit Looks at Artworks with a Purpose

December 1, 2021

Perched atop churches, barns, businesses, homes and seats of government, weather vanes have over hundreds of years taken the form of everything from farm animals to pets, storybook figures to race cars.

They were invented for one important job: telling which way the wind was blowing. Gradually, they became appreciated as an art form.

A new exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, “American Weathervanes: The Art of the Winds,” showcases the history, technical virtuosity and artistic beauty of vanes made between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The free exhibit runs through Jan. 2.

“Weathervanes have always been at once tools and sculptural architectural elements, combining function with visual interest and symbolism,” the show’s curator, art historian Robert Shaw, writes in a companion book (RizzoliElecta).

The galleries feature around 50 weather vanes and patterns, along with ephemera like bills of sale, advertisements and vintage photographs.

The weather vanes range from simple carved birds, fish, livestock and dogs to figures that seem to literally be riding the winds – loping ponies, racing horses, fire trucks, and wildly imaginative witches, sea serpents and vehicles with many moving elements.

One work, “Dove of Peace,” was commissioned by George Washington. An amateur meteorologist, he asked Mount Vernon’s architect, Joseph Rakestraw, to design the dove-shaped weather vane with olive branches in its mouth.

The museum’s curator, Emelie Gevalt, cited the museum’s own “Hudsonian Curlew” as one of her favorites.

The 1874 piece is large — nearly 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide. A relatively simple design, it depicts the body and distinctive curved beak of the shorebird in gold-leafed sheet metal, and once sat atop the Curlew Bay sportsmen’s club in Seaville, New Jersey.

“The magnificent silhouette of this large vane communicates exactly why early 20th century Americans found weathervanes so appealing,” Gevalt said. “The graphic impact is strikingly modern, speaking to the strong intersections between the modern aesthetic and what we call ‘folk.'”

The exhibit also includes a 62-inch-tall, gilded statue of a Native American with bow and arrow pointed skyward. The work set a record for a weather vane sale, $5.8 million, at Sotheby’s in 2006.

Native Americans were a common subject of early American weather-vane art. In the exhibit, Joseph Zordan, consulting scholar and a member of the Bad River Ojibwe, contributed interpretive text about these vanes and the legacy of colonialism. “Inevitably, such images tell us more about the people who made them than those they are said to represent,” he said.


What makes a weather vane work? The arrow on the structure is a balancing weight, so when the wind blows, it – and whatever object is attached above it – turns in that direction.

A change in wind direction can mean a storm is coming, so the weather vane was a key tool for farmers or seafarers over the centuries. For people in towns and cities, looking up to see a wildly swinging vane meant it was time to head indoors.


Shaw said weather vanes date back at least to the ancient Greeks. In medieval times, they were often fabric flags; later, those flags were made of metal, and some can be seen on public buildings from colonial America.

(The ubiquitous rooster? Shaw says that was the result of a papal decree in the 9th century. Plus, the bird’s shape made for an efficient capturer of wind direction.)

Shipbuilders, butchers, carriage makers and others often used weather vanes to advertise their businesses. Copper became a metal of choice because it was easily cut and shaped into interesting forms, took well to gilding or painting, and didn’t rust.

There were weather vanes for all budgets, Gevalt said. J. Howard & Co. in Massachusetts made many elaborate and expensive vanes, but also smaller, inexpensive roosters.

As early as the 1920s, vintage weather vanes began to find new homes with folk art collectors, and by the 1970s there were some large exhibits and books.

While their usefulness has faded, replaced by high-tech meteorology, weather vanes remain popular as roof ornaments.

Creative and custom weather vanes can still be purchased today. You can have your favorite sport or the family pet depicted in vane form at weathervanesofmaine.com. Fairy tale characters, planets and spaceships can be found at sites like westcoastweathervanes.com. . At ferroweathervanes.com, you’ll find scuba divers, dinosaurs, submarines and croquet-playing crocodiles. And at weathervanefactory.com, there are whimsical jackalopes, dancing pigs, a Viking ship and more.


The financially struggling Metropolitan Opera will present 18 productions in 2024-25, matching the current season and pandemic-curtailed 2019-20 for the fewest since 14 in strike-shortened 1980-81.

Top Stories


A pregnant woman was driving in the HOV lane near Dallas.

General News

NEW YORK – Meropi Kyriacou, the new Principal of The Cathedral School in Manhattan, was honored as The National Herald’s Educator of the Year.


Jimmy Carter Becomes First Living Ex-President with Official White House Christmas Ornament

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former President Jimmy Carter has another distinction to his name.

JERUSALEM  — International efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas appeared to gain new momentum Thursday as the White House said a visit by a senior envoy with Israeli leaders was “going well” and other mediators reported encouraging signs from the warring parties.

ATHENS - With improvement changes made by the leadership of the Ministry of Justice and after a two-day lengthy debate and intense confrontation between the government and the opposition, the draft bill for the new penal code was voted by a majority in the plenary session of the Hellenic Parliament.

LAS VEGAS  — Hydeia Broadbent, the HIV/AIDS activist who came to national prominence in the 1990s as a young child for her inspirational talks to reduce the stigma surrounding the virus she was born with, has died.

NEW YORK – Greek-American John Avlon, a Democrat and former CNN political analyst, announced on February 21 that he is running for Congress in New York’s 1st Congressional District, the New York Times reported, noting that he is entering “a crowded congressional primary to try to flip a Republican-held swing seat on Long Island.

Enter your email address to subscribe

Provide your email address to subscribe. For e.g. [email protected]

You may unsubscribe at any time using the link in our newsletter.